Sorry to interrupt...this will only take a moment.
This site is an independent reader-supported project.
Because you have viewed at least a few articles now...
Can you give a small donation to keep us online?
We can give you e-books and audiobooks and stuff.
This site is an independent reader-supported project.
The cost of keeping it running are considerable.
If you can spare a few dollars it would help us enormously.
We can give you e-books and audiobooks and stuff.
×
×
Experimental Feature

Select 'Atmospheric Audio' from the Audio menu to add subtle background audio to certain portions of the article.

The Windscale Disaster

Article #269 • Written by Gerry Matlack

In the wake of World War 2 the United States government enacted legislation which prohibited any other nations from receiving the scientific bounty derived from the Manhattan Project. This meant that despite the participation of British scientists in the project, Britain recieved none of the benefits of the research. The year after the United States' first successful nuclear bomb test in July of 1945, the British government decided that they too must develop a nuclear program in order to maintain their position as a world power. This pilot project eventually developed into the Windscale Nuclear plant.

In October 1957, after several years of successful operation, the workers at Windscale noticed some curious readings from their temperature monitoring equipment as they carried out standard maintenance. The reactor temperature was slowly rising during a time that they expected it to be falling. The remote detection equipment seemed to be malfunctioning, so two plant workers donned protective equipment and hiked to the reactor to inspect it in person. When they arrived, they were alarmed to discover that the interior of the uranium-filled reactor was ablaze.

Windscale's two nuclear piles had been constructed in concrete buildings just outside of the small village of Seascale, Cumbria to produce Britain's bounty of weapons-grade plutonium. The fission reactors had a straightforward air-cooled configuration which allowed each one to exhaust its excess heat through a tall chimney. Breeder reactors such as those at Windscale create plutonium by bombarding the most common isotope of uranium (uranium-238) with neutrons. Any uranium atoms which happen to absorb a neutron briefly become uranium-239, an unstable element which rapidly decays into neptunium-239. Having a half-life of only 2.355 days, this element also soon decays, resulting in the desired plutonium-239.

Each of the heavily shielded Windscale reactors was comprised of a stack of massive graphite bricks. A series of vertical boreholes through these blocks acted as channels for the reactor's control rods which were used to absorb loose neutrons and thereby govern the fission rate. Hundreds of horizontal channels were carved into the blocks in a octagonal pattern for inserting canisters filled with whatever substances the scientists wished to bombard with neutrons. Many contained uranium to convert into plutonium, but others were special isotope cartridges for producing radioisotopes.

The canisters were pushed into place through the front of the reactor-- known as the charge face-- and once the neutrons had worked their magic and turned a good portion of the metallic uranium into plutonium, they were pushed out through the back into a water duct for cooling. The reactor itself was cooled by way of a fan-driven air duct which forced air over the reactor core and out the 400-foot-tall discharge stacks. As a last-minute modification, and at a great effort and expense, a filtering system was added to the top of each chimney at the insistence of a physicist named Sir John Cockcroft. These filters came to be known as "Cockcroft's Folly" due to their engineering difficulty and questionable value.

It was not understood during the plant's construction that graphite which is subjected to neutron bombardment has a tendency to store that energy within dislocations in its crystalline structure. This stored energy is called Wigner energy, named after physicist Eugene Wigner who discovered the effect during his own experiments. Left unchecked, graphite has a tendency to spontaneously release its accumulated Wigner energy in a powerful burst of heat. This was made apparent after two years of operation, at which time unexpected temperature increases were observed in the cores. On one occasion this occurred while the reactor was shut down.

Charge face of a Windscale reactor core
Charge face of a Windscale reactor core

To combat the Wigner energy buildup, the operators at Windscale instituted a process whereby the accumulated energy was allowed to escape by heating the graphite bricks to 250+ degrees Celsius, a process called annealing. At such temperatures the crystalline structure of the graphite expands enough to allow the displaced molecules to slip back into place and release their stored energy gradually, causing a uniform release which then spreads throughout the core. These annealing cycles were executed every few months, and they were performed while the reactor was fully loaded with its 35,000 cannisters of metallic uranium.

For a time, annealing succeeded in preventing the excessive buildup of Wigner energy. But the reactors and their attendant instrumentation were not designed with annealing in mind, therefore the monitoring equipment tended to provide misleading feedback to the reactor operators. The cycles were also notoriously unpredictable, releasing the pent-up energy at temperatures which varied from one instance to the next. In 1957, Windscale operators modified their procedures to require annealment every 40,000 Megawatt-days rather than every 30,000. They were growing concerned with the observation that higher temperatures were required each time, and that unexpected pockets of excessive Wigner energy were lingering in the graphite piles between cycles.

On 7 October of that year, the operators of Windscale Atomic Pile Number 1 began what would turn out to be its final annealing cycle. After the initial heating of the reactor core, the control rods were re-inserted to slow down the fission process and allow the reactor to cool. The temperature monitors, however, indicated a premature dwindling of temperature in the core, leading the operators to believe that the annealing had not been successfully initiated. Unbeknowsnt to the workers, the readings produced by their equipment were inaccurate due to a combination of improperly placed instruments and uneven heat distribution caused by higher-than-normal pockets of Wigner energy.

Based on this misleading information, the operators made a fateful decision-- they restarted the annealing process by heating the reactor once more. When the control rods were withdrawn to allow the fission reactions to increase, the temperature inside the graphite stack increased to dangerous levels. The heat became so extreme within the core that one of the canisters containing uranium or magnesium/lithium isotopes ruptured, spilling its contents and causing oxidation. The blocks of graphite-- a substance which cannot burn in the air except under extreme conditions-- began to smolder.

Early in the fourth day of the annealing process, operators felt that something was amiss when some instruments indicated the core temperature was not slowly falling as expected, but actually increasing. Their fears quickly compounded as they realized that the needles were pegged on the radiation meters at the top of the discharge stacks. The shift foreman declared an emergency. When the operators attempted to examine the pile with a remote scanner, much to their frustration the mechanism jammed. The reactor manager's deputy Tom Hughes and another operator then made their way to the charge face of the reactor wearing protective gear to make a visual inspection of the core. A fuel channel inspection plug was opened, and as Hughes later recounted, "We saw to our complete horror, four channels of fuel glowing bright cherry red."

The reactor had been burning for nearly forty-eight hours. Plant manager Tom Tuohy climbed eighty feet to the top of the reactor building clad in full protective equipment and breathing apparatus, and examined the rear discharge face while standing on the reactor lid. He saw a red luminescence lighting up the space between the back of the reactor and the rear containment wall.

Unsure of how to deal with a fire of this nature, operators tried turning the cooling fans to full power in order to bleed off heat, but the oxygen provided by this effort only fueled the fire. Tuohy suggested removing fuel cartridges from the heart of the fire manually by forcing them from their channels and into the cooling ponds using scaffolding poles. The effort was valiant, but the poles were unable to withstand the punishment. They were red hot as as they were withdrawn from the nuclear furnace, and the ends were dripping with molten radioactive uranium. As one of the men battling the unique fire described the exposed fuel channels, "It was white hot, it was just white hot. Nobody, I mean, nobody, can believe how hot it could possibly be."

Next the men borrowed twenty-five metric tons of liquid carbon dioxide from the newly-built gas-cooled Calder Hall reactors next door. Equipment was rigged to deliver the carbon dioxide to the charge face, but the heat from the fire was so intense that the oxygen was liberated from the carbon atoms upon contact, feeding the blaze into a renewed intensity.

By the morning of Friday 11 October, eleven tons of uranium were burning. Equipment was registering temperatures of 1,300 degrees Celsius in the reactor, and climbing at a rate of 20 degrees per minute. The cement containment around the burning reactor was in severe danger of collapse due to the extreme heat. Having no other viable options, the operators decided to attempt to extinguish the fire with water. This was a very risky proposition, as molten metal oxidizes when in contact with water. The oxidation would create copious amounts of free hydrogen in the highly heated environment, possibly creating an explosion upon mixing with incoming air.

The workers used scaffolding poles to direct their hoses into fuel channels about a meter above the heart of the fire. As the cooling and ventilating air were shut off, Tuohy ordered the evacuation of everyone except himself and the fire chief. Tuohy scaled the reactor shielding one final time and ordered the water turned on. As the hoses sprayed the charge face, he listened carefully for any signs of a hydrogen reaction as the hoses sprayed the graphite core. Several more times he scaled up and down the reactor and reported how the flames slowly died away, "I went up to check several times until I was satisfied that the fire was out. I did stand to one side, sort of hopefully, but if you’re staring straight at the core of a shut down reactor you’re going to get quite a bit of radiation."

Removing a canister from the charge face
Removing a canister from the charge face

After twenty-four hours, the fire inside the reactor was finally extinguished. Astonishingly, only about 20,000 curies of radioactive material were released into the environment. It was determined that the amount of harmful radiation would have been far greater were it not for the "Cockcroft's Folly" filters. While no citizens were evacuated from the surrounding areas due to the accident, there was some worry about milk from nearby dairy farms becoming contaminated with Iodine-131, which the human body will collect in the thyroid and which can result in thyroid cancer. As a safety precaution, for about a month all milk from the surrounding 500 square kilometers was diluted and dumped into the sea.

Though some radiation was leaked over the countryside, it didn't lead to any immediate death or injury to any of the reactor staff or members of the surrounding community. Reactor Manager Tom Tuohy-- thought to have been exposed to the most radiation during the event-- is now in his mid-80s and is living with his wife in the USA. One study conducted in 1987 estimated that as many as thirty-three people may eventually die from cancers as a result of this accident, though the Medical Research Council Committee concluded that "it is in the highest degree unlikely that any harm has been done to the health of anybody, whether a worker in the Windscale plant or a member of the general public." In contrast, Chernobyl caused forty-seven immediate deaths and as many as 9,000 may die from related cancer.

Today, some areas of Cumbria still prompt a few clicks from Geiger counters due to lingering caesium-137 isotopes. While the Windscale reactors have been in the process of being decommissioned since the 1980s, the core of Windscale Pile 1 still contains roughly fifteen tons of warm and highly radioactive uranium, and the cleanup is not expected to finish until 2060.

Ultimately the unnecessary incident could have been avoided with a bit of knowledge from the Manhattan project. Had the American government opted to share the nuclear knowledge which the British had helped to gain, the mishap could have been avoided altogether. Fortunately the foresight of Sir John Cockcroft and the valor of men like Tom Tuohy and Tom Hughes prevented this minor disaster from flaring into a national catastrophe.

Article written by Gerry Matlack, published on 07 May 2007. Gerry is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows. Suggested by Steve Shirt.
SHARE

More Information
Related Articles


63 Comments
anti
Posted 07 May 2007 at 03:00 am

i found this site a week ago and since have read the entire archives and i must say....i love you guys....there is nothing better than obscure knowledge! i have heard a bit about most of your articles but this is the first one i have had no previous knowledge in the least....thanks for providing days of entertainment!


jarvisloop
Posted 07 May 2007 at 03:30 am

Anti: You are correct about this site; I first found out about it thanks to Kim Komando. I also find it to be damn interesting that the authors of this site have accomplished what Failure Magazine failed to do. I still check Failure Magazine every day, but this site wins hands down, especially when a writer describes another great miscalculation and/or perfidy.


david3565
Posted 07 May 2007 at 03:38 am

"Ultimately the unnecessary incident could have been avoided with a bit of knowledge from the Manhattan project. Had the American government opted to share the nuclear knowledge which the British had helped to gain, the mishap could have been avoided altogether."

Of course the whole of not sharing that knowledge was probably to avoid the arguably larger threat of Soviet infiltration (which, admittedly, didn't help, in light of what the Rosenbergs leaked). Though, as you pointed out, the British already had scientists involved, so could it be that the US didn't need to release information they already had? Assuming, of course, that this knowledge had been gleaned during the Manhattan project. Even then, it would have been difficult to foresee an incident like this. But setting all that aside, it should be pointed out that the British, in attempting a nuclear program, accepted the risks that came with it.

Hindsight being 20/20, it is rather easy to make judgments in the here and now, but one of the keys to unlocking history is to understand why choices were made when they made them.


justapeon
Posted 07 May 2007 at 04:15 am

One gripe...you call uranium highly radioactive when in fact it is the fission products not the uranium that is highly radioactive. Fifteen tons ain't all that much either, uranium is very heavy


Kiwi
Posted 07 May 2007 at 04:31 am

Wow, too much science talk for me! But still very damn interesting!

Is it just me or are damn interesting article posts getting rare?


Hoekstes
Posted 07 May 2007 at 04:57 am

Whew, read that 3 times, still don't understand sh*t - fission never have been my thing. Moral of the story? Don't try to make weapons grade plutonium, especially in your own back yard.


Bolens
Posted 07 May 2007 at 05:12 am

Gerry, what a tremendous article... well done! Never heard about this one. I love science and good ol' British resolve. I bet the man who ordered the stack filters was vindicated pronto.


lip_ring
Posted 07 May 2007 at 06:51 am

Hoo boy, this one took a bit of effort - it was a little too heavy on the jargon. Otherwise, DI!


Floj
Posted 07 May 2007 at 07:01 am

Hoekstes said: "Whew, read that 3 times, still don't understand sh*t - fission never have been my thing. Moral of the story? Don't try to make weapons grade plutonium, especially in your own back yard."

This guy built his own reactor in his back yard:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Radioactive_Boy_Scout
The Government wasn't really happy to discover that.

DI Gerry, I think that the lure of nuclear power was so incredible that many nations sacrificed saftey precautions to catch up with everyone that had it. Russia unfortunately brought about a tragic catastrophie in Chernobyl, and it seems that England may have experienced a similar incident had they not responded to the goofy readings. Hopefuly we can learn from this and take precautions when experimenting with new fields of science.

Regardless of the danger however, I'd love to see some of these on the market:
http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=656
mmmhmm atomic pie, it's got a bite.


robo
Posted 07 May 2007 at 07:36 am

Didn't realize countries used so much Uranium for atomic energy. Little Boy atomic bomb only had 64 Kg of Uranium and here we are talking about tons and tons of the stuff.


wargammer
Posted 07 May 2007 at 08:08 am

Robo

there are different types of the material, isotopes.

the one used as fuel for reactors and bombs is rare.


Brandie
Posted 07 May 2007 at 08:38 am

DI indeed! I don't think I really understand all the science ins-and-outs, but what I found most interesting was the bravery of the men who stayed behind to battle the blaze.

Just my 2 Cents.


Random5
Posted 07 May 2007 at 09:08 am

Natural uranium comes in two flavours or isotopes, both of which are uranium because they have 92 protons, but different numbers of neutrons. The neutrons in the atomic structure help keep the element stable or make it unstable. So one isotope U238 (238 being the total number of protons + neutrons) is fairly stable and doesn't decay commonly enough to cause nuclear reactions on its own, while U235 falls apart more easily and can cause controlled or uncontrolled fission reactions.

U238 makes up the vast majority of naturally occuring uranium (99.2%) while U235 makes up most of the other 0.8% (i think there's a 3rd even rarer natural isotope?).

Anyway to make uranium useful it has to be enriched to at least 3% U235, which is done by melting it down so that the lighter U238 floats to the top, and a portion with more U235 can be taken. Also in reactors like this one, they can turn U238 into plutonium, useful in weapons and other reactors by bombarding it with neutrons from other nuclear reactions. This is what they were doing, hence why the pile was surrounded with all those canisters of uranium.


uncle frogy
Posted 07 May 2007 at 09:27 am

"While the Windscale reactors have been in the process of being decommissioned since the 1980s, the core of Windscale Pile 1 still contains roughly fifteen tons of warm and highly radioactive uranium, and the cleanup is not expected to finish until 2060."

This for me is the most often over looked aspect of the whole Nuclear question. That part of the clean up is only the sight clean up there remains the disposal of all the now radio active debris. The crumbling concrete, all the supporting structure and equipment, water, all of it dangerous to varying degrees and for different times, all must be processed somehow and stored for a very long time. All of which constitutes a cost $$$ which is never included in the cost of any use of Atomic Energy nor Nuclear weapons manufacturing, I have never heard of it in any estimate that included such costs. We won't even try to estimate weapons use clean up.

All the courage and heroism aside and the brilliant science and engineering that goes with it, it just seems to me to be more trouble than it is worth.


rev.felix
Posted 07 May 2007 at 09:50 am

You read the entire archives in a week?! My God man, did you sleep?


lostindustrial
Posted 07 May 2007 at 10:01 am

I've been noticing a bit of editorializing in the DI articles lately...


nukebass
Posted 07 May 2007 at 10:28 am

Wow! What more surprises me on this site is that even with a very low rate of updates, its still VERY interesting! Not too much articles, but almost every article you can put as its name: DAMN INTERESTING!


ironcross
Posted 07 May 2007 at 11:05 am

It's a shame we can't find cheaper, easier to handle, safer, abundant sources of energy. I get my electricity from Peach Bottom in PA and I pay FAR LESS than my neighbors who receive theirs by dirty coal fired plants. Nukes are just something you need to respect, because the first second you don't respect it and you're dead.

I enjoyed the article except there is an "as as" which I do quite often and I'm afraid I am one of the few nobodys who thinks when you use "due to" it means something will happen in the future. Otherwise it is "because of."

Of course so many say "due to" it has become acceptable such as Boris's has- this cracks me up, only the stupid people got this freebie wrong in English class on a test 25 yrs ago when I was in HS.


helmett
Posted 07 May 2007 at 12:02 pm

I think, perhaps, that the technology that would have helped the Brits is the inherent stability and safety of a pressurized water reactor.

For instance, at both TMI and Chernobyl both had approx one-third of their reactors "melt-down" as the popular phrase goes. There were DRASTICALLY diferent results due to the aforementioned B&W pressurized water reactors as well as the sturdy containment building (which can be used as a condenser and cooling cycle in and of itself in case of a breach with sumps and such) at TMI and the resulting explosion of the reactor at Chernobyl and the tin shed they built over it.

It is also evident in Naval nuclear power applications as well. Behold the vast number of accidents in the Soviet navy and the lack of them in the Allied navies. Pressurized water reactors are simply the best way to generate nuclear power bar none.


another viewpoint
Posted 07 May 2007 at 12:07 pm

...lesson to be learned here...DON'T ever start something unless you know how to stop it!!!

You can never be 100% sure that you have imagined, considered and planned for every contingency. And it is usually the one you didn't plan for that ends up getting a piece of your butt.

Regarding electricity generation, no matter what the source, what bothers me most is the electric utility CEO telling me on local radio that my rates have gone up and they are offering special payment plans for those that can't afford the increase. Damn Sam...send a notice with the electric bill and let it go at that...you highly overpaid and over-rated money manager! I'll get off my soapbox now.


sykora4417
Posted 07 May 2007 at 02:35 pm

It's scary to think that one of the containment ponds that exists on the site today is considered one of, if not the, most contaminated points on earth, and that they have no idea what to do with it.


Spike
Posted 07 May 2007 at 03:20 pm

Damn interesting article. Scary thought, I actually understood most of the science in this article, is it possible that reading the articles on this site is making me smarter?

Random thought: Annealing is to Wigner energy as cherry pie is to hunger.


Bryan Lowder
Posted 07 May 2007 at 04:23 pm

Are you sure it wasn't more the strontium-90 they were worried about in the milk, rather than the iodine-131? Certainly I-131 is dangerous, but strontium gets taken up readily into milk...


GigsTaggart
Posted 07 May 2007 at 06:30 pm

Thanks Gerry for getting the facts straight on graphite! So many articles about this type of incident say very incorrect things like "highly flammable graphite". I'm glad you pointed out that graphite is really not very flammable at all under sane conditions. It's one of my pet peeves I guess.

It's seems people like to think "those stupid gits, they shouldn't have used something highly flammable as a nuclear reactor casing", facts be damned.


thermopile
Posted 07 May 2007 at 07:00 pm

Damn Interesting, indeed. And here I thought I already knew about the big nuclear disasters ... leave it to DI to dredge up one more.

A question, though ... did the Americans (through the Manhattan Project) know much about the Wigner effect in carbon that would have helped the Brits? I think the Hanford B reactor used similar graphite, but I don't recall a Wigner effect being discovered from that. I'm not sure the Americans were any smarter about that stuff than the Brits were. (It was, for you super-nerds out there, where Fermi discovered the existence of Xe-135 and I-135, when the reactor mysteriously shut down after about 8 hours of high power operation.)

And, Bryan -- there's a whole host of nasty stuff that could be spewed from a reactor, including Sr-90 and I-131. Iodine sits in the thyroid, strontium sits in the bones, and xenon likes to hide out in the bottom of your lungs.


Old Man
Posted 07 May 2007 at 07:07 pm

When you get to a certain age (26), you start to appreciate pieces written with a decent grasp of grammar.

Very nicely done, Gerry, and not at all too scientific.

Makes you wonder if fusion is such a good idea...
http://www.iter.org/


Silverhill
Posted 07 May 2007 at 10:02 pm

Random5 said: "Anyway to make uranium useful it has to be enriched to at least 3% U235, which is done by melting it down so that the lighter U238 floats to the top, and a portion with more U235 can be taken."

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), it's not nearly as easy as that to separate those two isotopes. Two methods were used during the Manhattan Project, in the scramble to glean U-235 and/or manufacture Pu-239: the calutron (a type of mass spectrometer) and the gas-diffusion process. Nowadays, cascades of hundreds, or thousands, of gas centrifuges are used because they need less energy and produce more quickly than gas diffusion.


craig552uk
Posted 08 May 2007 at 02:05 am

I remember being told one of these "science facts you'll always remember" abut Windscale when I was at school. Here it is...

Parts of Windscale are, at most, as radioactive as a banana.

I don't know how true it is, but I like it!


Lisette
Posted 08 May 2007 at 02:39 am

Awesome...

"Reactor Manager Tom Tuohy– thought to have been exposed to the most radiation during the event– is now in his mid-80s and is living with his wife in the USA."

... I make sure I never stand in front of a microwave!!! hahaha DI as usual.


Dr. Evil
Posted 08 May 2007 at 05:15 am

I'd rather be fission...i need to get some fission chips into me...ah...try and think of some moe jokes people...im all out

:D


Spike
Posted 08 May 2007 at 06:32 am

Dr. Evil said: "I'd rather be fission…i need to get some fission chips into me…ah…try and think of some moe jokes people…im all out


:D"

Are you fission for a compliment? This ones a stretch but there are plenty of fission in the sea...


Nicki the Heinous
Posted 08 May 2007 at 07:16 am

You and me going fission in the dark


sshirt
Posted 08 May 2007 at 07:25 am

A little known fact about the whole incident is how close it came to being a Chernobyl style disaster. If John Cockcroft had not insisted, (despite much ridicule and expense) on having filters on the chimney stack the additional amount of radioactive material released would have contaminated a large part of Cumbria. In fact parts of the countryside would probably still be uninhabitable today.


justapeon
Posted 08 May 2007 at 07:44 am

Before I got glasses I used to get splitting headaches coz my fission ain't so good.


Thag
Posted 08 May 2007 at 10:57 am

Con-fusion say "He who splits atom, have bad eve."


Dr. Evil
Posted 09 May 2007 at 12:43 am

nice ones there people...i had a fission that there would be some good puns around here


jarvisloop
Posted 09 May 2007 at 05:23 am

Old Man said: "When you get to a certain age (26), you start to appreciate pieces written with a decent grasp of grammar.

My reply is not on the subject of fission, but your opening caught my attention because I agree with you. In addition to grammar, I find that, even though I try to avoid doing so, I judge a writer's intellectual depth and chronological age by his/her punctuation, sentence construction, spelling, and vocabulary.

I suspect that my involuntary reaction is due to being 54 next week. It's become damn interesting to watch what changes happen to me against my will. I don't know if the same thing will happen to you or not.

I find your moniker ("Old Man") to be interesting. Compared to most of the readers of this site, I imagine that you are, indeed, an old man. As for me, I am discovering that, the older that I become, the younger older looks. Time will tell if you go through the same change.

Final comment: For those of you are inclined to reading 3d print, "Jarvis Loop" is a character in a series of modern novels by Chuck Rosenthal. With his implicit permission, I have taken that name as my pseudonym.


NinerSevenTango
Posted 09 May 2007 at 05:53 am

Thank you for not dumbing down this Interesting article.


Radiatidon
Posted 09 May 2007 at 08:24 am

Those John Cockcroft filters remind me of a similar safety protocol that was tested unexpectedly back in 1983.

Back in 1983 a fault beneath Mt. Borah shifted. The resulting tremor shook the Richter scale for a 7.0 – 7.3 (sources vary). This caused a dramatic 15-foot increase in the height of the Mountain, which had scientist wondering if it had grown, or the valley floor dropped. For its time it was the most studied earthquake due to its unusual nature. The resulting seismic wave was felt over 500,000 miles, including Montana, Utah, Oregon, Washington, the Dakotas, and even into Canada.

Just 50 miles from the epicenter at Mt. Borah, is located a hotbed of radioactive goodness, the INEEL which encompasses 571,000 acres of sagebrush joy. The Idaho National Experimental Engineering Laboratory was created for the testing and advancement of nuclear technology. This site was selected for both its geological stability (the Lost River Range had not experienced any earthquakes for around 4,000 years), its isolation (located in the middle of a large desert where the State has a relatively small population base), and readily available infrastructure (a major roadway transects this area to California, plus due to the agricultural status of Idaho there are many mainline rail lines).

Even though the area has a history of fractural stability due to the Yellowstone hotspot, the design of the test reactors included an automatic shutdown in case of a 3.0 or higher earthquake. At the first major jiggle, all online reactors shutdown as designed. Even though the site buildings wiggled, none of the reactors suffered any damaged, but some minor cosmetic cracks did occur in the outer support structures.

One can only imagine the dire results if the site buildings had not been designed to withstand earthquakes, tornados (the Arco desert in Idaho does suffer a “white tornado”), and other such ilk. Also, if the auto fail-safes on these systems had not worked and the reactors been compromised.

You see, beneath the Arco desert is the largest known aquifer in the world. The Snake River Plaines Aquifer contains over a billion acre-feet of water and is the sole supply for over 50% of the population living above it. It is but one of many aquifers in Idaho. How far reaching could this disaster have been if any of the containments produced by the INEEL had leeched into this watershed? Containing more water than Lake Erie and stored in fractures of basalt rock, any type of cleanup would be virtually impossible.

http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas/geo/quakes/quakes.htm
http://www.seis.utah.edu/NEHRP_HTM/1983bora/n1983bo1.htm
http://www.inl.gov/geosciences/earthquakes.shtml


Rockadilly
Posted 09 May 2007 at 08:41 am

Radiatidon said: "Back in 1983 a fault beneath Mt. Borah shifted. The resulting tremor shook the Richter scale for a 7.0 – 7.3 (sources vary).


Just 50 miles from the epicenter at Mt. Borah, is located a hotbed of radioactive goodness, the INEEL which encompasses 571,000 acres of sagebrush joy. "

Now that’s something you don't think about. Glowing shake-n-bake. Seems totally whacked. The misses and me are in agreement, Sydney is not as bad as we once thought with all you read here on this site. 'Course there are some really messed up blokes here abouts.


HiEv
Posted 09 May 2007 at 05:48 pm

Thanks for the article. I really enjoyed the "technical stuff" because I always love learning about new things. I'd never heard of the Wigner effect before.

As far as "editorializing" goes, please don't stop. History is something we need to learn from, and some people overlook the lessons unless they're clearly spelled out.


Dave Group
Posted 10 May 2007 at 02:42 am

Great article! I had never heard of this incident. A hundred years to clean it up? Wow. As Heinlein once said, "Accidents happen." When I was a student at SUNY Geneseo thirty years ago, a couple reps from the Rochester power company came to give a talk promoting nuclear energy and how safe it was. After they finished speaking, one of the students raised his hand and said, "Yeah, I worked at one of your power plants. Our badges would occasionally be in the red, and sometimes workers would go into restricted areas without protective clothing." The two men got deer-in-headlights looks as they nervously asked, "When was this? Who was your supervisor?" Quite a revelatory moment.


Misfit
Posted 10 May 2007 at 06:49 am

david3565 said: "Of course the whole of not sharing that knowledge was probably to avoid the arguably larger threat of Soviet infiltration (which, admittedly, didn't help, in light of what the Rosenbergs leaked). Though, as you pointed out, the British already had scientists involved, so could it be that the US didn't need to release information they already had? Assuming, of course, that this knowledge had been gleaned during the Manhattan project. Even then, it would have been difficult to foresee an incident like this. But setting all that aside, it should be pointed out that the British, in attempting a nuclear program, accepted the risks that came with it.

Hindsight being 20/20, it is rather easy to make judgments in the here and now, but one of the keys to unlocking history is to understand why choices were made when they made them."

I couldn't agree more. If the British (or anyone, for that matter) want a nuclear program, then they need to earn it, damnit! Even before the Americans made the atom bomb, there was from hundreds to thousands and still upwards more of tests, experiments, and calculations to make sure that if we start messing with this stuff, we best be careful about it. We knew of the experiments done by Otto Hahn in 1939 and saw the many faces of potential for that kind of power (in almost every way you can imagine) and made sure that we did our best to know what we were doing before we did it (if that last part makes any sense). Nuclear power isn't exactly something you read out of a manual. (Think NEW technology, one that needs many many many more years of experience in handling before much is known about it, even with our already extensive research)... America giving out information about nuclear energy back in the dawning days of it is like giving away "build your own rifle-kits" to kids. Not to mention the looming threat of Soviet Russia at the time had to be pretty scary back then, too.

Plus I'm sure that the notion of being the first and so far only country at the time proficient in nuclear technology didn't sound too shabby either.

Also, I have a few questions...

How exactly did the filters work to stop the spread and all that jazz? What were they made out of, etc.

the

"four channels of fuel glowing bright cherry red,"

was that because it was on fire, or was the liquid itself glowing red for some even more scientifically fantastical reason?

Damn Interesting indeed Master Matlack!


jjsharshaw
Posted 10 May 2007 at 08:58 am

According to a recent program on PBS about the life of Sir Issac Newton, Newton, in his personal notebooks, predicted the end of the world based upon the Bible and calculus calculations as 2060. I don't know whether it's DI or scarier than, well, pretty damn scary, that in the next to the last paragraph of this piece. 2060 is set for the final cleanup date of Windscale Reactor 1. Cue the scary music.


Radiatidon
Posted 10 May 2007 at 10:32 am

Misfit said: "How exactly did the filters work to stop the spread and all that jazz? What were they made out of, etc."

The filters were nothing more than particulate collectors. Constructed of fiber (not sure of type but probably fiberglass) and charcoal. Basically these things were there to capture any dust, pollen, or other debris that may have become radioactive as the air flowed past the reactor. These filters did not stop the flow of radioactive gasses, as that was not part of their design. These gases were what infected the countryside.

Misfit said: "was that because it was on fire, or was the liquid itself glowing red for some even more scientifically fantastical reason?"

First off the “fuel” is not a liquid, but a metal. I am not sure of the shape used at the Windscale plant, but I can describe a U.S. design. The fuel is basically formed from ground uranium oxide, referred to as “yellow cake”, into pellets, rods, or plates. They are then incased in aluminum, stainless steel, or zircaloy for structural strength and to prevent the release of radioactive particles.

For instance, the pellets are inserted into long tubes made from an alloy of zirconium metal. This is called the fuel rod. Next fuel rods are bundled together to create the fuel assembly. A fuel assembly can contain from 50 to 300 fuel elements. These are installed into a nuclear reactor, the type and size depends on the style and use of the reactor. Fuel assemblies can range from just 2-pounds to almost a half-a-ton.

Within the uranium is a natural process called fissioning or splitting of uranium atoms. This process generates heat. By rubbing your hands together briskly you will notice that they get warm. This is due to friction. Keep it up and pretty soon it becomes uncomfortable if not painful. If you were able to continue long enough, you could generate enough heat to burn your skin.

The uranium can continue to generate heat. If the heat is not displaced, it builds. The red glow of the fuel was the thermal heat generated by the metal of the fuel rods. Leave a poker in the fire and before long the metal will turn red as it gives of thermal heat. Same principal. This is undesirable since the fuel rod can overheat to the melting point of the containing metals. For example which is easier to store or dispose of, a single sheet of glass or one that was dropped and shattered into thousands of pieces. Could you ever be sure that you picked up every single piece of that broken glass?


Gerry Matlack
Posted 10 May 2007 at 09:30 pm

Dave Group said: " A hundred years to clean it up?

You might want to note that the cleanup didn't begin until the 80s - they made the wise decision to not disturb the site until they had the proper technology to safely effect the cleanup, so the cleanup will end up taking roughly 80 years. A large part of the work going on there now is being performed by shielded, remotely controlled robots.

Radiatidon said: "First off the “fuel” is not a liquid, but a metal. I am not sure of the shape used at the Windscale plant, but I can describe a U.S. design. The fuel is basically formed from ground uranium oxide, referred to as “yellow cake”, into pellets, rods, or plates. "

The Windscale reactors used metallic uranium, while modern reactors use uranium dioxide as their fuel source due to the far higher melting point; metallic uranium melts at 1132.2 degrees while uranium dioxide melts at 2800 degrees Celsius. At the time they decided to use water to extinguish the Windscale reactor, the temperature inside was measured at over 1300 degrees.


Radiatidon
Posted 11 May 2007 at 06:11 am

Gerry Matlack said: "The Windscale reactors used metallic uranium, while modern reactors use uranium dioxide as their fuel source due to the far higher melting point; metallic uranium melts at 1132.2 degrees while uranium dioxide melts at 2800 degrees Celsius. At the time they decided to use water to extinguish the Windscale reactor, the temperature inside was measured at over 1300 degrees."

Thank you Gerry, I did not think about the temperature. So there is a high possibility that when they finally did a visual check, that the fuel rods and uranium had bypassed the melting point for each. You don’t know what the containing metal encasing the uranium was do you? Just to feed my curiosity you know.


Steve Shirt
Posted 11 May 2007 at 10:33 am

The Windscale piles used Aluminum containers for the Uranium.

Later reactors in Britain used Magnox, (a Magnesium/Aluminium alloy)


Radiatidon
Posted 11 May 2007 at 11:31 am

Steve Shirt said: "The Windscale piles used Aluminum containers for the Uranium.


Later reactors in Britain used Magnox, (a Magnesium/Aluminium alloy)"

Thanks, my curiosity is now sated.


PhilD
Posted 16 May 2007 at 12:39 am

DI to learn about the more technical parts of the incident. (I'm not a physicist, so I actually know little about this, but for quite a bit of time I thought I'd become one before I turned to math and computer science)


chris549
Posted 19 July 2007 at 04:31 am

I was born in Manchester late in 1957 - 3 Months before this event which happened fairly close to where I lived - my older brother died of cancer in 1963 - he was 9 years old. His name was William.

Many articles have been written which completely debunc the 'no harm to anybody' rubbish. There will probably be people dying due to this accident for many generations to come.


supercalafragalistic
Posted 28 July 2007 at 08:33 pm

Floj said: "This guy built his own reactor in his back yard:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Radioactive_Boy_Scout
The Government wasn't really happy to discover that.

This guy built his own reactor in his back yard:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Radioactive_Boy_Scout
The Government wasn't really happy to discover that.

Thanks for posting that. I didn't know about the Radioactive Boyscout. Readers of these articles are just as damned interesting!


drhoz
Posted 17 August 2007 at 04:04 am

but people die of cancer at any age, Chris549. Why blame Windscale? What kind of cancer was it?


martin123
Posted 08 October 2007 at 03:25 pm

It seems you've skated over a BIG point - the fire was only really put out by Tom Tuohy's second decision, after connecting the water, to CUT OFF THE AIR...... if it had not been for this decision, it would probably have been meltdown within a few hours (or as near to meltdown as we can imagine). Of course in the Penney Report the operators (especially Tuohy) who actually saved the day, just got the collective BLAME for "not following procedures". There was some meally mouthed fudging about "inadequate instrumentation", but essentially the accident was "caused" by "an error of judgement". Tom Tuohy probably deserved a medal for what he did, an MBE at least. I knew nothing of this detail until I saw the BBC2 documentary tonight.


Alx_xlA
Posted 26 January 2008 at 08:21 pm

I'm sure that everyone there was thinking the same one word: Whoops!


sh0cktopus
Posted 02 May 2008 at 10:51 pm

Alx_xlA said: "I'm sure that everyone there was thinking the same one word: Whoops!"

For some reason, I don't think their thoughts were as family-friendly as "Whoops!" I would give you some more probable utterances, but I'm not too familiar with extravagant British curses. Perhaps someone would like to give a few examples? :)


Dexcelcious
Posted 15 September 2008 at 11:26 am

Americans always with the isolationism!
Well, that did kinda go out the window with Vietnam....


BenKinsey
Posted 29 September 2008 at 09:00 am

I appreciate the article and thanks for not dumbing it down for us who aren't scientists, I think it has actually helped me comprehend how nuclear energy works, fission and all that. I also appreciate those who provide insightful comments, I have learned alot since coming to DI!


the real michael
Posted 21 November 2009 at 08:28 am

The heros of this farce were indeed the ZEROS
who caused this to happen in the first place... in an attempt

to cool the overheating chambers they blew oxygen through

them.... what normally
happens (as in a coke oven for instance)
is that the oxygen flow keeps the fire raging until it is

switched off, and thats what happened at windscale, in

laymans terms, the numpties blew cold air in expecting it to

cool but actually caused the raging inferno,it wasnt until

the blower went out that the overheating more or less

stopped. The
techs at windscale were to blame..they wernt heros at

all...just ZEROS...so much for hm gov employing monkeys! just

though id mention it incase you thought that the disaster was

evaded through the intellect of any employee of

windscale...it wasnt.

let me add that windscale was built under the guise
of a modern,clean and safe way of generating
electricity, that is the ONLY reason why it was approved
without too much dissent, but we now know the truth
that it was built to make fuel for bombs designed to
kill all lifeforms, which we dont want..or need..

there is a more modern way to generate electric which
is 100% safe to the enviroment, but the gov dont want to know
because the primary objective is to produce plutonium for

bombs, and until we all dissent against these meglomaniacs
it will continue until the amount of nuclear plants will

become a major irreversable threat to life as we know it.


DeLuzional
Posted 21 November 2009 at 10:10 pm

Thag said: "Con-fusion say “He who splits atom, have bad eve.”"

says everything I think...:)


DeLuzional
Posted 22 November 2009 at 08:44 am

I thought most of you would enjoy this

http://www.kiddofspeed.com/default.htm


Theodore
Posted 08 May 2014 at 01:45 am

I would suggest that the figures for Britain wide cancers is very much higher and that collation of those statistics would have been impossible at the time. Now even more so. Norway must have experienced some sort of spike in cancers perhaps they could fill in the picture that our establishment wouldn't. Spontaneous Leukemia for example did spike in the 60's but quite by how much ?


JohnAllen
Posted 13 November 2014 at 10:10 am

The filter elements in the Cockcroft filters were approximately one metre square and fitted into a large support matrix, but one of the problems with them was they restricted the air flow to much for the necessary amount of cooling required. So often many of the elements were removed to increase the flow of cooling air. Much of the dust in the form of a white power was to be found all over the local area. One of the principal scientific officers working at Windscale built his own Geiger counter and one day when his daughter came home from school, as she removed her beret he noticed a line of white powder across her forehead, he used his Geiger counter to measure any radiation and his devise went fully off the scale. This might explain where the missing tons of Plutonium went.


END OF COMMENTS
Add Your Comment

Note: Your email address will not be published, shared, spammed, or otherwise mishandled. Anonymous comments are more likely to be held for moderation. You can optionally register or login.

You may use basic formatting HTML such as <i>, <b>, and <blockquote>.